Analysis: Next president will shape the future of the Middle East

Candidates' views about foreign policy are significantly divergent.

us special 224 (photo credit: )
us special 224
(photo credit: )
It is hard to imagine that had Al Gore been elected president, the US would have invaded Iraq. Similarly, the policy of Republican John McCain, if elected president, will in almost all certainty be different from the policy of Democrat Barack Obama should he enter the White House. These candidates' views about American foreign policy are significantly divergent, reflecting the difference between their respective parties. Iran McCain is convinced that an Iran with nuclear weapons constitutes an unacceptable risk. He believes it is a country that supports terror and interferes with American efforts in Iraq by arming and training Shi'ite militias. He has claimed that the US is facing "an evil man and a very dangerous regime," and that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons it will assume that since no country will want to confront it, it therefore has unlimited power. In such a situation, it will be perceived as a threat to other countries in the Middle East that may in turn want to develop nuclear capacities of their own. McCain is among the senators behind the decision to define the Revolutionary Guards, the military arm of the Iranian regime, as a terror organization. He has criticized Ahmadinejad's declarations about the destruction of Israel and denial of the Holocaust, and argued that they expose the danger posed by a nuclear empowered Iran. Nonetheless, McCain prefers a diplomatic solution to the problem, emphasizes the use of "aggressive" diplomacy, and supports the imposition of significant political and economic sanctions. If the Security Council does not impose substantial sanctions on Iran, as president he will likely try to muster the support of leading countries that will put this into effect, and will also aim to delegitimize the Iranian government. McCain does not explicitly mention replacing the Iranian government, but he talks about generating internal discussion in the country to demonstrate that the government does not represent public opinion, rather the aspirations of an extreme elite. He does not rule out the use of military force. The US National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007, which determined that Iran apparently suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, did not substantially change McCain's approach. He claims that Teheran still constitutes a threat due to its involvement in international terror and its support of "Hamas and Hizbullah, terror organizations bent on the destruction of Israel." However, he identifies less urgency in the matter, and hopes that it may be possible to hold talks between the countries - but only after Iran suspends its nuclear activity, and without the US providing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a propaganda opportunity, especially if it does not receive anything in return. Obama is more moderate on Iran than McCain, emphasizes the use of diplomacy, and is even planning direct talks with Iran (initially at low government level) without preconditions. On the other hand, he, too, does not rule out the military option, which would enjoy more extensive support if adopted only after the US has already proven that it has made every diplomatic effort. Obama defines Iran as "a genuine threat to the United States and Israel," and Ahmadinejad's administration as "a threat to all of us." He, too, recognizes the dangerous implications of nuclear weapons in Iran's possession for regional stability. Obama initiated a law designed to help US states withdraw investments by companies that trade with Iran. On the other hand, he did not support the decision that called for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to be defined as a terror organization, as he saw this as an overly belligerent approach that might provide the Bush administration with the basis for launching an attack on Iran. Iraq McCain supported launching the war in Iraq and subsequent US efforts to stabilize the country, despite criticizing the strategy as too weak until a decision was made in early 2007 to reinforce the troops. He believes that exiting Iraq now and even setting a timetable for the withdrawal would be tantamount to admitting defeat. It would be "a mistake of colossal historical proportions" that would lead to catastrophic results for the Middle East: civil war in Iraq, a strengthening of Iran's standing, unsettlement of regional equilibrium, a strengthening of the Taliban and al-Qaida, and a greater threat to Israel. On the other hand, a US victory in Iraq means a functional country (even if with a flawed democracy) that cooperates with the United States in a long struggle against terror. Obama has opposed the war in Iraq since it began (even before he was elected senator), and he mentions this record regularly. Obama believes that the US's security situation has deteriorated since 2003, as the invasion and occupation of Iraq have led to the strengthening of international terror, Iran, al-Qaida, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Taliban. He blasts the financial price of the war as too high, damaging the US economy, increasing the US's monetary dependence on foreign capital, and in turn damaging national security. Obama promised that as president, he would start to withdraw American troops from Iraq immediately and continue over the following year and a half. At the end of the process a very small force would remain there to protect Americans in Iraq, train Iraqi security forces and carry out operations against al-Qaida. Israel and the Palestinians McCain is a veteran supporter of Israel. He believes that Israel is America's "natural ally in what is a titanic struggle against Islamic extremists," and that the "bond between the United States and Israel is not only strategic... but also moral." McCain has promised that as president he will work to strengthen America's commitment to Israel's security, and will continue to provide it with arms and technology that will maintain its military supremacy in the region. He sees Hamas as a terror organization and an ally of Iran with which, until it recognizes Israel's existence, the US and Israel should not negotiate. He asserts that no sovereign state can accept repeated terror attacks on its territory and citizens, and thus he supports the action Israel takes against Hamas and other terror organizations in the Gaza Strip. McCain has even said that Israel should not be pressed into any negotiations as long as terror exists. He favors talks with Abu Mazen, but cautions that the Palestinian Authority president's control is limited. Regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, McCain declared that he does not believe Israel should return to the 1967 borders. Since Obama was elected to the Senate and through his presidential campaign, he has also expressed his support for Israel in its struggle against terror. He defines Israel as "the US's strongest ally in the region, and the only democracy there"; he is committed to Israel's security, including by maintaining its military superiority; he sees Hamas as "a terror organization devoted to the idea of destroying the State of Israel," and therefore does not comprise a legitimate partner to negotiations until it changes its attitude. Obama supports a two-state solution and is "committed to making every effort to help Israel achieve peace," but will not force a settlement on it; he opposes a Palestinian right of return. Obama is the only candidate who has not expressed support for the security fence, which he described as "another example of the neglect of this administration in brokering peace." Who, then, is "good for Israel"? That depends on the beholder. McCain would maintain Bush's line, probably without the religious, emotional and personal elements that made his strong support of Israel exaggerated among portions of American public opinion. Obama, on the other hand, would likely inject a sense of urgency to the political process, and would display less patience over what is viewed as foot-dragging by Israel in implementing its commitments according to the road map (significant removal of army roadblocks, evacuation of outposts, freeze of settlement construction). Those who believe that Israel requires a US administration that does not pressure it into following a path that it does not want to take, and is committed to stopping the Iranian danger through military means, if necessary, will prefer McCain over Obama. Those who feel that Israel needs a US administration that will impose a direction on it that it might otherwise not pursue, and that the danger of a nuclear empowered Iran does not necessitate the use of military force will prefer Obama over McCain. Nevertheless, there is a word of caution for members of the latter group. While Obama allows himself to express relatively balanced positions already at the election campaign stage, it is possible that after he is elected, his policy will reflect his original critical positions. ••• The future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depends more on what happens between the sides than the extent and nature of the involvement of any US administration. On the other hand, the continued presence of the US in Iraq almost entirely depends on the next US administration. Indeed, a decision on the withdrawal of the American army is an individual decision by the president; Bush's success in withstanding the pressure of the Democratic majority in Congress proves this. The way in which the United States deals with the Iranian danger, through more effective diplomacy and/or implementing the military option, mainly depends on Washington. The president can also decide on his own to launch an aerial attack on Iran, as opposed to a land-based invasion. It seems, then, perhaps more than in other elections, that the particular Democrat or Republican who will enter the White House will to a large extent shape the future of the Middle East. Roni Bart is a PhD research fellow at the INSS - Institute for National Security Studies, dealing with American policy in the Middle East. Limor Simhoni is a research assistant at the INSS. This is a shortened version of a forthcoming article in the INSS's quarterly strategic assessment.